Legal Concerns Related to Classroom Mock Elections
Date Posted: 10/10/2022
As the 2022 general election nears, many teachers will consider holding mock elections in their classrooms. Mock elections have traditionally been a fun, educational way for students to engage with current candidates and issues and familiarize themselves with the voting process. However, the increasingly contentious political climate—combined with recent legal changes—may have you wondering whether mock elections are a good idea.
Passed in 2021 by the Texas Legislature, Senate Bill (SB) 3 has now been incorporated into the Texas Education Code. SB 3’s many provisions include tasking the State Board of Education (SBOE) with revising the Social Studies TEKS. The SBOE is still engaged in that process. The final version is not yet available, but the new law requires the adoption of curriculum that would seem to encourage activities such as mock elections. SB 3 specifies that SBOE’s new curriculum will require development of students’ knowledge and understanding of civic engagement in the United States and the structure, function, and processes of all levels of government institutions. Also, students are to learn the manner in which government works and operates through “simulations and models of governmental and democratic processes,” including participation as a “citizen in a constitutional democracy by voting.”
Although that might seem like a straightforward endorsement of mock elections, you may be more familiar with some of SB 3’s other provisions related to teaching potentially controversial concepts. These have left teachers and school districts struggling to find the right balance when such topics arise. For example, a teacher may not require or make part of a course certain student activities relating to political activism, lobbying, or participating in an internship—even for things such as social or public policy issues. Teachers are also prohibited from giving a grade or extra credit to students for engaging in these types of activities. However, a student cannot be barred from participating in a program that prepares them for participation and leadership in our democratic process at the federal, state, or local level through the simulation of a governmental process, including the development of public policy. Finally, teachers may allow students to communicate with elected officials so long as the teacher, school, or district does not influence the content of a student’s communication.
If you decide to hold a mock election, be aware of SB 3’s new instructional requirements and prohibitions on discussion of candidates or their platforms. Teachers may not be compelled to discuss controversial issues of public policy or social affairs—but if you choose to discuss such issues, you are required to “explore the topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.”
So, what does all this mean in the context of mock elections? Perhaps most importantly, a teacher must cover candidates and issues fairly and equally. When discussing a candidate’s platform, remain objective, and do not share any political bias or personal opinions. If student discussions veer into more controversial issues, try to keep them on track—but understand that the new law also prohibits punishing students for engaging in discussions or enacting policies that would have a chilling effect on reasonable student discussion of certain concepts covered in the law. Finally, it may be a good idea to notify your administration of your mock election plans so there are no surprises on that end. Having preapproval and administrative guidance can go a long way in keeping a fun classroom project from spiraling into controversy and chaos.
The Texas Secretary of State has developed a Project V.O.T.E. Student Mock Election Guide that can help you get started. It contains ideas on mock voter registration drives, complete with voter registration applications and certificates. It also contains an “Official Ballot” and instructions on making “I Voted” stickers, along with a lot of other helpful details about the voting process.
Student mock elections can be a good way to educate students of all ages about the voting process and the importance of voting in general—but they are not entirely without risk. Hopefully, with the information above, teachers who choose to hold mock elections can do so smoothly and successfully.
The legal information provided here is accurate as of the date of publication. It is provided here for informative purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Please note: Rights based on the Texas Education Code may not apply to all. Many Texas Education Code provisions do not apply to public charter schools, and public school districts may have opted out of individual provisions through a District of Innovation plan. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department.